The Lure of a Vineyard I King 21

The Lure of a Vineyard I King 21 May 30, 2016

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I do not drink wine; I have never drunk wine, neither from boxes nor bottles, neither cheap nor expensive. I know this makes me at best a peasant and at worst a philistine. My wife loves good wine; my children adore wine (they are adults!). I have one of those ominous “0” birthdays coming up (and I don’t mean 60), and our celebration plans include a trip to one of the wine areas of California, where I will commemorate my birthday by watching my family drink fine wine and where we will all go on a day-long wine wrangler’s trip through several vineyards. I will eat grapes and sip soda, I suppose.

I hasten to add that my aversion to wine, and to all beverages alcoholic, has nothing whatever to do with my hatred of strong drink, based on some religious or moral aspersions. I simply do not like the taste of such things. When told, “You just need to develop your infantile taste buds, Dad,” I retort, “Why should I drink enough stuff that I cannot stand in order to want to drink it at all?” Forgive me, but it makes no sense to me to drink things I simply do not like.

But I know that wine and grape growing and the cultivation of vineyards have a long and hallowed and complex history. The fact that water in the ancient world was too often the source of disease and sickness made the fermentation process crucial for health and safety in diets. Among the very first hieroglyphic records we have from ancient Egypt portrays in detail the brewing of beer, a fixed feature of Egyptian palates since before the erection of the great pyramids, some five thousand years ago. The first grower of grapes and distiller of wine are lost in the mists of the distant past, but discussion of wine and vineyards is surely as old as the beer of Egypt. Indeed, traces of grape cultivation have been found at the site of Jericho in Israel, perhaps the world’s oldest city, stretching back in time more than 12,000 years. Wine and beer have been staples of human consumption since the keeping of any records at all.

But more important for our concern today is what the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine meant for the economies of ancient civilizations. Grape cultivation takes the right soil, the right temperatures, the correct amount of sunlight, and considerable care from the farmer to enable a successful vineyard to produce adequate crop for the production of wine. And vineyards take space, large areas of cultivation, to enable the grapes to grow effectively. Vineyards are designed to produce cash crops, grapes enough to create wine enough to sell in markets to generate money enough to plow back into the vineyard to yield more crops the next year. Hence, the farmer becomes wealthy if the crop continues to grow and her vineyard grows along with it. For example, the vineyard owner of Matthew 20 is clearly a very successful farmer, since he must return again and again to the market place to find pickers for his vineyard, a planting that was surely vast. (See the large northern Israelite vineyard here.)

Whether or not Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21 was vast we do not know, but it was sited quite close to the palace of Ahab of Samaria. (See the ruins of that very palace below.) And Ahab wanted the vineyard of Naboth, not to exploit it for its cash crop of grapes and wine, but rather for a vegetable garden, “because it is near my house,” (I Kings 21: 2). Or so he says. The king proposes to tear out the vines and plant squash and cucumbers and other root vegetables that tickle the king’s fancy. But the vineyard has to go in order to satisfy Ahab’s desire to dig in the dirt near his palace, apparently so that he will not need to walk very far to work in his new garden.

There is something distinctly fishy in the king’s request, don’t you think? Does he really want to dig in a new garden of his own? He is after all the king of Israel. Is it likely that the king of Israel really wants a vegetable garden to satisfy some ancient urge to get close to the soil or to grow fresh produce for the kingly table? Or could it be that Naboth’s fine established vineyard produces superb grape crops each year which in turn produce fine wine for the tables of the wealthy in Samaria, wine that rivals any that the king’s no-doubt significant vineyards produce, in the end putting the king’s royal vintages in the shade? Is Ahab attempting to put a rival out of business, rather than searching for a patch of ground for vegetables? This is of course all speculation on my part, but I do know that vineyards are much prized in any culture, and for a king to wish to dig one up for vegetables strikes me as peculiar.

Whatever Ahab’s reason for his request, Naboth is having none of it. Ahab does present his offer in a fair way; he says that he “will give you a better vineyard for it, or if you prefer, I will give you its value in cash” (I Kings 21:2). It seems a reasonable offer, but Naboth flat refuses. “YHWH forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (I Kings 21:3)! Three things are noteworthy about this reply. It is an oath, meaning that Naboth brings YHWH into the transaction, when Ahab sees his offer as merely a business deal. Something divine is involved in this vineyard, and Naboth is bound by God’s involvement in the vineyard. Second, Naboth claims that he cannot “give” his vineyard to Ahab, though Ahab had said nothing about giving it, but rather had offered either an exchange for a better vineyard or a fair price. Apparently, Naboth’s vineyard cannot be bartered or bought, but only given. Third, it is Naboth’s “ancestral inheritance.” In short, it is his only by family tie, and is YHWH’s unique gift to him as heir to the family. In reality, Naboth speaks of his vineyard precisely as YHWH speaks of the divine gift of the land of Israel to the chosen people. The sacred land cannot be bought and sold and neither can Naboth’s vineyard.

And now the fun and the horror begin. Ahab leaves the presence of Naboth “resentful and sullen” because his request for the vineyard had been rejected (I Kings 21:4). He trudges back to the palace, “lay down on his bed, turned his face to the wall, and would not eat” (I Kings 21:4). One can only imagine that he sticks his thumb in his mouth to complete the infantile picture of the great king of Israel, pouting over his lost garden. His infamous wife, Jezebel, strides into the royal bedchamber and demands to know what is wrong with her husband. “Why are you so depressed that you won’t eat,” she shouts? The pouting king recounts to his incredulous wife his conversation with Naboth, concluding with a strangled scream that Naboth would not give him the vineyard.

Jezebel retorts with considerable scorn, “Are you king or not in Israel? Get off your bed, eat, cheer up; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (I Kings 21:7)! And so she does. She trumps up some false charges against Naboth, hires two scoundrels to denounce him at a feast she arranges, and has Naboth murdered by stoning after the charges are made public and the witnesses have perjured themselves as she asked (I Kings 21:8-14). As soon as she hears that Naboth is safely dead, she marches into Ahab’s room and triumphantly declares, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive, but quite dead” (I Kings 21:15)! Immediately, Ahab “set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth, to take possession of it” (I Kings 21:16). We are not told if Ahab began ripping out the vines and planting his vegetables, but we are told that he “took possession.” This verb, yarash, is repeated in the story for emphasis; this is the verb that is used again and again in the ancient story of YHWH’s gift of the land to Israel; YHWH bids the people to “take possession” of the gift of the land of promise. But in this sordid tale, Ahab’s “taking possession” of Naboth’s vineyard is a mockery of that divine gift; the vineyard has been taken by force as the result of lying and trickery and murder. Naboth’s refusal to “give” Ahab his vineyard has forced the king of Israel to steal the land though manifest evil deeds.

When the prophet Elijah hears of these actions on the part of the king, he shows up to denounce Ahab for the usurper and monster that he is. “Have you killed and also taken possession,” using that fatal verb once again (I Kings 21:19)? Elijah than predicts that “where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth so will dogs lick up your blood” (I Kings 21:19). As far as we know, that does not happen to the king, but dogs do lick up the blood of Jezebel when she is murdered by a later vengeful king of Israel, Jehu (II Kings 9:30- 37).

Here we see that vineyards can be a dangerous lure for the powerful. If my speculation above is possible, then Ahab has been trapped in his desire to put a rival vineyard out of business to secure the wine trade for his own. Even if I am wrong, the story of Naboth’s vineyard continues to echo down the centuries as a clear statement that great power can easily be abused, and that that abuse stinks in the nostrils of YHWH now in the twenty-first century CE just as much as it did in the ninth century BCE.

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